Under the bonnet with Lia Mice

Lia Mice’s music sits satisfying between genres. The beats are industrial, the sounds often atonal, the vocals often alien. Yet occasionally she’ll offer up a baseline or a melody that engages your electro-pop sensibilities, or equally deliver a pick up in pace that places her in the techno sphere. She balances all these elements and more on her most recent album, The Sampler As A Time Machine (Optimo Music). Over the course of 130 sessions (when we met, we sat and did the maths together), she crafted an absorbing piece of electronic music, built up out of countless samples which she manipulates through various pieces of hardware and software – perhaps most distinctively through her tape deck. 

Alongside her work as an artist, Lia is also a PhD student at Queen Mary University, researching how the size of instruments influences composers in their choices. This research has compelled her to build larger-than-life instrument sculptures, which she will then observe other musicians interacting and creating with. One such instrument is the Prism Bell, which made an appearance at her recent performance supporting Objekt at Islington Assembly Hall. 

© Photography by Jake Davis (www.hungryvisuals.co.uk)

Mice’s live setup is a conscious mix of sparing and overblown. Rather than dispersing her energy across multiple bits of gear, she chooses to focus her attention on her Octatrack and her vocals, which she manipulates through a TC Helicon Voicelive rack. This allows her to engage more fully with her audience, and also gives space for the larger-than-life elements of her set – in Islington, that was the Prism Bell, and two sequin-clad dancers. It’s also a compact, back-protecting collection of items to transport to and from gigs.

Following Lia’s Islington show, I was curious to better understand what was happening on stage. We spent a rainy Sunday afternoon in her Hackney Wick studio talking through her live setup – and that’s what we’re going to delve back into now.

Here’s a zoom-in of the core gear in play.

And in diagram form:

As the diagram shows, the Octatrack is the heart of Mice’s set up. It’s a powerful sampler which contains the key elements of each of Mice’s recorded tracks. Using the Octatrack gives Mice a vast range of options for manipulating her sounds live, meaning she can take her recorded samples as a starting point and then go on to create and improvise on the spot. 

It’s taken around three years for her to master the machine, as it has to be learned in much the same way you would learn an acoustic instrument. Mice takes the view that it’s better to get really good at manipulating one device, than half-understanding a load of synths, drum machines, pedals and a laptop. 

Logical, consistent organisation of samples is crucial for allowing Mice to work at pace. So each of the eight tracks is assigned to a particular type of sound, and each bank (which represents a particular song) is divided into 4 sections. Mice’s choices for the 8 tracks are: 

  1. Live vocals (a direct signal from her mic, via the TC Helicon)
  2. Kick
  3. Bass
  4. Synth sounds
  5. Hi-hats (she especially likes to have control of the hi-hat sounds when playing live)
  6. Other percussive sounds
  7. Non-live vocal samples
  8. Global effects (eg applying a delay or reverb to all tracks at once)

All the practice and painstaking organisation pays off when you witness Mice’s agility with song transitions and sample manipulation, using effects such as pitch bending and delay. She is lightning fast, and has a confident, precise knowledge of how to access the sounds and effects she needs.

Let’s talk now about the TC Helicon Voicelive rack, Mice’s vocal effects processor of choice. Whilst Mice’s lyrics do sometimes flirt with traditional verse-chorus structures, running them through TC Helicon keeps things firmly experimental – her track Overwrite The Past is a great demo of the different directions the TC Helicon can take vocals.

Again, simplicity is key in order for Mice to stay focussed during live performance. She has around 6 of her own pre-sets to apply to her vocals – one lowers the pitch by an octave, with a pretty threatening result, another adds an extra note over the top at a particular interval, another causes each sound to melt away into distorted noise. She’ll select the one she wants, and run with it. You’ll often see her recording a sound into Track 1 of the Octatrack, turning it into a new sample which she can then further manipulate using the Octatrack’s effects options – changing up the pitch, for example. Once this sample is running, she can continue to sing live vocals over the top of that. The role of vocals as story-teller or sonic texture are heavily blurred in Lia’s music, with arresting results.

And finally – the Prism Bell, built by Lia herself. This isn’t a permanent feature of Mice’s set up, but it’s worth pausing on for the insight it gives into Mice’s thinking about live performance and composition in general. By striking a branch of the spindly construction at the Islington show, the dancer, Janine A’Bear, would trigger a note, randomly selected from a set of notes pre-defined by Mice. The force of the strike also affects the note’s tone. This was a slightly different configuration from Mice’s Supernormal Festival performance earlier this year, where the higher branches corresponded to higher sounds. Decoupling particular branches from particular pitches for the Islington show made playing the instrument more performative – something for dancers to interact with, rather than having to ‘master’ playing. 

This approach ties in with Mice’s idea that tech enables us to disrupt musical relationships; where in the past, you could always anticipate the exact pitch and quality of a note before you made it, technology allows us to break and play around with those connections, with exciting, often unrepeatable results.

The Prism Bell will no doubt continue to evolve as part of Lia Mice’s wider musical journey – it’s in her nature to experiment, to push boundaries, and then to focus hard on the things which fit with her unique vision. 

You can follow Lia Mice’s journey on liamice.com, Soundcloud, Twitter, Spotify, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram.

Feature image by Chris Turner

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